Yuval Levin and Virginia Postrel on Civil Society and Bourgeois Dignity

by Reihan Salam

Briefly, I wanted to direct you to two essays on President Obama and “It Must Be Because I Worked Harder Than Everybody Else,” which others refer to as “You Didn’t Build That.” In the latest issue of National Review, Yuval Levin argues that the president’s Roanoke speech illustrates a broader belief that doing things together means doing things through government. The mediating institutions between the individual and the state thus get short shrift in his worldview. This difference of opinion regarding the role of civil society represents, in Yuval’s view, a fundamental divide between the left and the right:

The Left tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it enables the application of technical knowledge that can make our lives better, and that this knowledge can overcome our biggest problems. This is the technocratic promise of progressivism. The Right tends to believe that the great advantage of our liberal society is that it has evolved to channel deep social knowledge through free institutions — knowledge that often cannot be articulated in technical terms but is the most important knowledge we have. For the Left, therefore, the mediating institutions (and at times even our constitutional forms) are obstacles to the application of liberal knowledge. For the Right, the mediating institutions (and our constitutional forms) are the embodiment of liberal knowledge.

The Left’s disdain for civil society is thus driven above all not by a desire to empower the state without limit, but by a deeply held concern that the mediating institutions in society — emphatically including the family, the church, and private enterprise — are instruments of prejudice, selfishness, backwardness, and resistance to change, and that in order to establish our national life on more rational grounds, the government needs to weaken and counteract them.

The Right’s high regard for civil society, meanwhile, is driven above all not by a disdain for government but by a deeply held belief in the importance of our diverse and evolved societal forms, without which we could not hope to secure our liberty. Conservatives seek mechanisms and institutions to bring implicit social knowledge to bear on our troubles, while progressives seek the authority and power to bring explicit technical knowledge to bear on them.

Alex Castellanos memorably referred to the difference between government and governance, the latter of which is and ought to be cherished by political conservatives. A central conservative anxiety is that the growing power of technocratic government will undermine the collective capacity for self-governance. 

The second essay I had in mind was Virginia Postrel’s fascinating meditation on the Roanoke speech in light of Deirdre McCloskey’s work on “bourgeois dignity.”